Minister of Courts Aupito William Sio jovially quips changes could take '18 years' when confronted over coronial inquest wait times

A grieving mother has been shocked by an off-the-cuff comment made by the Minister in charge of Courts.

When Aupito William Sio faced questions recently over increasing coronial inquest wait times, he made a joke that went down like a lead balloon with families waiting to learn vital information about an unexpected death.

Minister Sio appeared to jovially quip changes "could take three years, could take 18 years".

His remarks have caused distress for families like Corinda Taylor, who's facing heartache and frustration while desperately waiting for coronial inquests to be completed.

Corinda's 20-year-old son Ross died by suicide in 2013.

"It is sleepless nights, it is nightmares, it is waking up in the morning not wanting to get out of bed, it is traumatic," she told Newshub. "I'm exhausted, I'm tired of waiting, no one deserves to wait this long."

And she's not alone. Waiting times for the Coroner's Court have significantly increased in the past year to 484 days on average. Currently, there are 5439 active cases.

When Corinda watched the Parliamentary select committee try to come to grips with the problem, she was even more frustrated and felt re-traumatised by the pain of her eight years of delay.

"I was just astonished that he could even say that, it shows me he has no idea about the urgency of the matter," Corinda said.

"Perhaps he would like to walk in the shoes of a bereaved family for just a couple of days to see what that is like, it's not a good place to be."

Ross Taylor.
Ross Taylor. Photo credit: Supplied

Sio's remark came after he struggled to provide clarity around the increasing wait times while facing a grilling from National's spokesperson for courts Chris Penk who demanded to know the "concrete innovations" Labour had introduced in its tenure to lower the coronial inquest waiting times.

"Can you please explain to the committee, beyond the 'discussing' and the 'exploring' and these kinds of words that get used in written answers... what is actually taking place or what has taken place, more to the point, actually to reduce some of the backlog, for example, in the Coroner's Court that you've acknowledged?" Penk asked.

Sio went on to say the Coroner's Court is "quite challenging" and explained Labour allocated money in its first Wellbeing Budget which allowed for the introduction of temporary coroners, however some were promoted and others retired.

"We're now exploring legislative changes that could take place, and I'm pretty confident that we're in a really good space to be able to embark on that particular work," Sio continued.

He acknowledged there are still challenges "that remain unsettled" but felt confident it was "heading in the right direction".

Minister of Courts Aupito William Sio.
Minister of Courts Aupito William Sio. Photo credit: Newshub

Penk then rebuffed: "Frankly though Minister, you're not", before delivering relevant statistics - including the wait times now averaging 484 days as compared with 303.

"What else have you got?" Penk asked.

"In the overall scheme of things, the system is heading in the right direction... I'm not trying to take away from the fact in the Coroner's space - I receive plenty of emails and I note the conversations that are happening in the public arena - and my acknowledgement of how difficult and challenging that is, but I want to assure this committee, yes we have started the work, to make some changes," Sio said.

"We met up with some challenges, now we are looking at other opportunities, it's a challenge that I'm up to... time will tell."

Penk replied: "When you say 'time will tell' Minister, what does that mean?"

That's when Sio retorted: "Maybe three years, maybe 18 years."

Newshub approached Sio about his joke.

"You're misinterpreting that, I spent that time teasing my colleagues who themselves were responsible at one point in time when they were in Government and now are raising these issues when they didn't do anything about it," he said.

When asked if the select committee meeting was the right time to jest, he said: "No it's not and don't try and make something out of this."

In the past several years, coronial wait times have increased, but last year they completely blew out - spiking by 38 percent.

Daniela Dragas lost her daughter Debbie Kovacic to suicide in 2018. She was 23 years old, a month shy of her 24th birthday.

Debbie Kovacic.
Debbie Kovacic. Photo credit: Supplied

She's among those outraged at the "flippant" approach made by the Minister when answering questions about coronial inquest wait times.

She says the 32 months she spent going through the coronial inquest process is one of the hardest things she's ever faced.

"The Minister's obviously flippant response to a question as to how long he thinks it will take to bring down the wait times reflects two things most accurately; absence of any genuine intent to address the issue with the urgency, compassion and understanding it deserves on the one hand, and on the other readiness of the New Zealand taxpayers to accept such a state of affair," she told Newshub.

"In other words - the New Zealand public remains indifferent even in the face of not only incompetence but lack of humanity from the country's highest-ranking officials. Whatever the public is prepared to tolerate and taxpayer to fund - remains unchallenged and thus unchanged."

She says although she would never wish a tragedy on anyone, she is sure that walking, even for a week, her shoes or any other parent made to endure the coronial proceedings after losing their child to suicide, would have radically change the Minister's attitude.

Penk told Newshub he wasn't impressed either.

"I obviously didn't do much of a job of hiding the disappointment that I felt and surprise frankly, here's a situation that's really serious for a lot of Kiwis going through really difficult times and we shouldn't be making light of that. In fact, the Government should be taking much more seriously the fact these are some of our most vulnerable people in society," he said.

"The reality is we've got a systematic problem here that the Government isn't showing any imagination with trying to solve."

Earlier this month, Corinda presented a petition to Parliament calling for the "urgent need" for more coroners to reduce the years-long delays, and access to free legal representation and medical experts for whānau during the inquest process.

Corinda Taylor.
Corinda Taylor. Photo credit: Supplied

She says the response so far isn't good enough.

The Chief Coroner is fully aware of the problem and says work is underway to get wait times down, but that will take time too, doing nothing in the meantime for families like Taylors, still waiting for answers. 

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